DRESS FOR SUCCESS
How can a place that serves such awful food always have a full parking lot, Greg Maley thought, driving behind Winston’s. He parked the cruiser beside the dumpster that two Mexican cooks were loading with flattened cardboard. The cooks stopped laughing and watched Greg walk toward the diner’s front door.
Inside Greg heard the Motown music he always heard there. It was the O’Jays this time and Charlie wondered why Winston’s never updated the jukebox; they weren’t spending the money on fresh vegetable and nice cuts of meat.
Cheryl Sanders, the daytime manager, noticed Greg and pointed to the back room with the laminated menu in her hand.
Greg walked past the photo wall with the owner, Sam Winston Jr., posed with nearly everyone who would agree to a photograph. Greg recognized a country singer, an actor who hadn’t been in a movie for years, and too many local politicians. Every time Greg went there he would look for new photos and there never were any, so the owner remained younger, happier and about sixty pounds lighter on the wall.
Greg saw his ex-wife’s blonde hair above the booth’s partition. He sat down and Muriel said, “Hello, officer.”
“Muriel. What do you want?”
After a fake sigh, she said, “I can’t invite my ex-husband to join me for lunch?”
“Of course you can. But you don’t.”
Greg raised up his arm, with an extended finger. One of the girls at the waitress station would notice.
“I need four hundred dollars,” Muriel said.
“I can’t,” Greg said, ”I don’t have it. That lot I bought just failed its perc test. I don’t know if I can unload it. Sorry, but this time I have to say no.”
Muriel gave Greg a sad boo-hoo face that she knew would not go over well.
“Really? Last week I met with the guy at our credit union, you know when he told me I can retire?”
Muriel added more boo-hoo to her expression.
“When I’m 102. How does that sound?”
“Please, heart attacks run in your family,” Muriel said. “You’ll be dead long before that.”
Muriel cut into her pork chop that was buried under thick brown gravy with streaks of undissolved flour.
“You want a bite?” she asked. “It’s much better than it looks.”
“No. I’m trying to get my blood pressure below my weight.” Greg reached for a fake sugar packet. “Whataya need the money for?”
“It’s for your daughter, so don’t get all super-pissy on me. Jen’s prom—there’s a dress she really wants.”
“Four-hundred for a dress?”
“Yup, four hundred for a dress she’ll do everything she can to get out of the first chance she gets.”
“Don’t talk about her like that.”
The Spinners started singing ‘I’ll Be Around’ and the waitress with the left arm wrapped in tattoos—an orange carp swimming beneath green lily pads—dropped off his coffee. Greg tore open the packet and dumped it into the mug.
“You have the talk with her yet?” Greg said, quieter.
“Why, is it 1958? Have you heard about the World Wide Web, Greg? The greatest supplier of hardcore porn known to man? By age 11 they know more about sex than most doctors. . . Oh, I meant to tell you, last week I heard noises downstairs late at night. And there’s your son—“
“—on the computer, watching a woman and a horse. It wasn’t Lady Godiva—though she was naked. Took a lot of gin to wash that image away.”
Muriel laid the fork and knife in the gravy and nudged the plate away from her.
“I’ll talk to him,” Greg said, “promise.”
“Please do. Seeing your thirteen-year old in his underpants enjoying bestiality, doesn’t make you feel real good about your parenting skills. You want to split the apple pie?”
“No. I have to get back to work.” Greg took a smaller sip that confirmed the coffee was bad. “Can’t your Bill come up with the money? Just this once?”
“Is the Pope Buddhist? Bill’s a special type of guy. A deadbeat with lots of money. Why did I ever leave you?”
“You were screwing the snowplow guy.”
“Right, there was that. If we had moved to Florida like I wanted, that never would have happened.”
For an ex-wife, he could have done a lot worse, a thought that made Greg smile.
“My bad.” he said. “I’ll see if I can pick up some extra details. I was going to anyways.”
The sun had set and it was rapidly becoming darker. Greg drove along the bluffs above the river and he could see the power plant’s lights fourteen miles away. The new cruiser had a larger engine and a smoother transmission and Greg could drive ninety-five miles an hour without the engine straining. Even at one hundred and ten he didn’t need to turn up the radio.
Up ahead Greg saw red taillights, dipping down and out of sight. The headlights reappeared on the next hill and the car was moving into the other lane. Nothing too jerky, maybe the driver was texting. Greg put on his lights and siren. The car, a Chevrolet sedan, pulled to the side of the road, the dust illuminated in Greg’s headlights.
Greg approached the car and knocked on the driver’s window with his flashlight. The window rolled down and the driver, a large man with a friendly smile said, “Hi.” The man looked like an actor in a bad but popular sit com—the beloved uncle who owns the sporting goods store or the goofy neighbor who always get a good laugh because of his bad memory or his constant confusion. Early Alzheimer’s humor.
“What’s the problem, officer?” the man asked.
“License and registration.”
The man reached into the console for his wallet.
“Okay, here’s the license,” the man said. “I take one horrible photo, don’t I? And here’s the papers from Hertz, it’s a rental.”
Greg shined the flashlight at the license and the Hertz document and said: “Having trouble staying in your lane. Been drinking?”
The man laughed, a quick spasm of laughter.
“No, officer, I’m just a little loopy from driving the past fourteen hours. Should’ve grabbed a hotel back a ways, but being cheap I didn’t.”
Greg held up his flashlight and said, “I’m gonna take a look.”
Greg aimed his flashlight into the back seat.
“Where you headed?” Greg asked, seeing there was nothing in the back, not even dirt or sand on the floor mats.
“Just going another thirty, forty miles up ahead.”
“Yeah, my younger sister has a cute place just outside of—”
“—Douglas is behind us, some fifty miles.”
The man’s face lit up with a large, amused grin.
“Good God,” the man said, “told you I was tired. Thanks for stopping me, I would’ve gone all the way to Canada. Wouldn’t have known until I hit the border.”
“Wouldn’t want that.” Greg said and he started shining the flashlight into the front of the car.
“Willya sit back a bit?”
The large man tried making himself smaller, sitting deeper into the seat, his arms pulled in tight. The light wiped across the dashboard. On the floor were Wendy’s napkins and under the seat, sticking out, the neck of a bottle.
“What’s that?” Greg said.
“Oh that. I bought a bottle from home to have at my sisters’. Her husband, Roy, is a real holy roller and—“
“—Hand it to me, real slow.”
“Hope this isn’t a problem.” The man passed the bottle carefully out the window. “Spend a week with Carl, my brother in law, you need a bottle nearby. Or two.”
The bottle had been opened, half of the rum was gone.
“The seal’s been cracked,“ Greg said. “Looks like—“
“—Like I mentioned, I brought it from home.”
The man was calm, he wasn’t pleading his case.
“Hit the latch for the trunk and please step outside.”
“Really?” the man said. And then, “Okay.”
Grunting, the large man squeezed himself out of the economy rental and stood outside, catching his breath.
“Step behind the vehicle. Cars fly up and down this stretch of road.”
Shielding his eyes from the flashing blue lights, the man walked behind the Cruze.
“Opened container I can do one of two things. Bring you in or give you a quick sobriety test,” Greg said. “I’m thinking you and your sister would prefer the test.”
“We both thank you. I coulda bought a bottle where they live, too, and we wouldn’t need to do this. Stupid.”
Greg held up a pen. “Without moving your head, follow the pen with your eyes…. Okay. Now arms straight out, and touch the tip of your nose with your forefingers.
“Tendonitis in both elbows, so don’t expect any style points... My right...And here’s my left. Want me to do it again?”
No cars had driven by in the past five minutes.
“Got one last drill. Heels together, hands by your side, raise your right foot six-inches off the ground and maintain the pose for a long thirty count.”
“Hard hearing you if you don’t.”
At “seven” Greg lifted the disengaged trunk and shined the light inside—overnight bag, a cooler and polished dress shoes.
“…Nine...Ten. Don’t be peeking at my underwear. Eleven…”
The man watched the policeman move aside the leather gym bag and reach for the cooler’s lid. If there were bottles of cold water inside, Greg would ask for one.
Still on one leg, the man started reaching behind him, as Greg opened the cooler and saw the money. Bound stacks of twenty- and hundred-dollar bills.
Top-heavy and balanced on one skinny leg, the man pulled a gun from his waistband and Greg spun around just as the unstable three hundred plus pounds pulled the man off balance.
The man stumbled like he was dancing downhill and an old panel van hit him with such force he was punched to the other side of the road. He bounced down the embankment.
The panel van kept driving. Soon there was no sound out there. On the road was one sock.
Greg stepped on the centerline. He looked north, nothing. He looked southbound, nothing. He looked back at the rental—an open trunk and the blue and white Igloo cooler.
If Jen wore an even more expensive prom dress, Greg wondered, would she be less inclined to take it off?